Sunday, March 27, 2011

Thoughts Delivered on the Third Sunday of Lent, 2011

In the Tolkien epic novel The Lord of the Rings it is the mission of Frodo Baggins to carry the ring to the fires of Mount Doom to be destroyed. Each day as he draws closer and closer the weight of the ring increases until it becomes an almost intolerable burden. Yet he bears it.

As we pass through the middle of Lent it appears that the length of the gospel narratives is doing exactly the same. If you think that this morning’s reading was long, you are in for a shock next week…

John the Evangelist tells the story of Jesus’ encounter with a Samaritan woman at the well. Yes, it is a lengthy narrative, but it contains a gradual unfolding of a process – a realization of faith, that cannot be interrupted. Cutting the gospel reading would be like cutting a piece of cloth on which has been hand-printed a beautiful and unique design.

And as the process unfolds we become aware of just how socially and religiously shocking this encounter was. And shocking in as many as six, specific ways.

First, Jesus, a man, deliberately approached a woman. Wrong. Against the social code. Open to misinterpretation.

Second, the woman was alone. Women in the first century would never be alone, even in the carrying out of their daily tasks.

Third, she was at the well at noon. Water was customarily drawn early in the day, which suggests that she was forced to walk alone later on account of her being ostracized by other women. Perhaps something to do with the long list of male partners, at which any respectable woman would snort with distain!

Fourth, she was a Samaritan. Enough said. Jews hated Samaritans and Samaritans hated Jews. Their long history of distrust and enmity had built a solid social, religious and political barrier between them – one that must never be crossed.

Fifth, Jesus request, “Give me a drink,” was taboo. For all of the reasons already mentioned.

And finally, sixth, the very possibility that a Jew and a Samaritan might share something as simple as a water bucket, was so outrageous as to be impossible.

Six reasons why this meeting at the well, instigated by Jesus, ought never to have taken place. Yet it did, and the conversation turned to discourse, and words moved from antagonism, through curiosity, to faith. And within a short sequence of events this very same woman is talking to others about Jesus using the language of witness and faith.

To describe her as a convert to the Jesus movement and mission would be a disservice, for the building bricks of faith were already within her. Rather what she experienced was the realization that those building bricks actually meant something, and had been energized. Her traditional faith had been brought to life!

Remember the previous person that Jesus had met? Last week we heard the story of Nicodemus, and it is worth setting him alongside the Samaritan woman. Two very human situations where Jesus engaged in powerful conversations. And yet with very different outcomes.

With all of his social and political standing, his religious qualifications, his knowledge of the Hebrew law and scriptures, and his keenness to discover more, Nicodemus returned home a puzzled man. It was all too much for him to absorb.

The Samaritan woman, on the other hand, had none of the advantages enjoyed by Nicodemus. She had no social standing (and may have been a outcast within her own village;) she had no education on account of her sex; and she belonged to the wrong tribe. When we look at this Samaritan woman, what part of “wrong side of the tracks” do we fail to grasp?

Yet despite all these things, this woman understood. She “got it.”

I hope that I have not unfairly judged Nicodemus, but his gospel story is deliberately negative, and that of the woman positive. The inherent lesson within these two stories is timeless and yet simple.

God wants all to see. To grasp. To come to that wonderful dawning realization that God wants to break in on our lives, and bring us again into a deep and loving relationship. But we shut God out. We put up barriers in all shapes and forms. Nicodemus’ barrier was one in which he analyzed too deeply, and depended too much on his inherited tradition. And so his heart was closed to God.

It took a stranger, an outcast, an abject foreigner of colorful background, a woman to open her heart. To let God in.

And because of her, so many others opened their hearts. And believed.

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